Many of us remember the ubiquity of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in their heyday, not only on the sidelines on Sundays but as a pop-culture phenomenon.
During the late 1970s, their posters and calendars were best-sellers. They made a guest appearance on “The Love Boat.” Their overseas USO tours became an annual holiday staple. In many ways, they were the forerunners for the cheerleaders of today, both on and off the field. But were they merely sex objects or feminist pioneers?
“They were loved and loathed in equal measure. They were on the covers of magazines and in a made-for-television movie. Their poster out-sold Farrah Fawcett,” said Dana Adam Shapiro, the filmmaker behind the documentary Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. “At the same time, they came under intense criticism from a lot of people, whether it was religious communities or the feminist movement, who saw them as regressive and exploitative and saw them as nothing but sex objects. Everybody had this snap judgment about what a cheerleader is.”
Shapiro (Murderball) was watching Super Bowl XLIX when the camera panned over to the cheerleaders between plays, and his mind fixated on the simplest of questions: Where did this come from? That launched his research for a film that he admits overhauled his perception.
“I had thought that cheerleaders were sort of silly, and sort of retro and kitschy. I didn’t equate them with any sort of empowerment or independence,” Shapiro said during the South by Southwest Film Festival. “I had a lot of assumptions and stereotypes that were very wrong-headed. When you confront your own judgmentalism, you’re forced to re-examine your bias. It’s an exciting thing to be made to feel like a fool. It was very eye-opening for me and made me rethink what I thought I knew.”
Shapiro reached out to former cheerleaders, but didn’t get anywhere until he tracked down Suzanne Mitchell, a former secretary to longtime Cowboys executive Tex Schramm. Mitchell oversaw the growth of the squad during the height of its popularity for more than a decade.
“She was the one who opened the doors to us,” Shapiro said. “Very few of them would talk on the record without Suzanne’s blessing. That made it really interesting to me. Who was this woman that had this hold on all these cheerleaders, 40 years after the fact? She was built up. She was notorious. By the time I talked to her, I was a little nervous.”
The hard-charging Mitchell was fiery yet compassionate as she grew the Cowboys cheerleaders into a global brand and guarded against backlash that her proteges were nothing more than scantily-clad Barbie dolls. For example, she came from a military family and emphasized the importance of the USO tours as a method of service to the country.
Mitchell granted Shapiro’s request for an on-camera interview even though she was suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer. She died in September 2016, only months after filming began.
‘They became this pop-culture phenomenon because of the way she ran that organization,” Shapiro said. “They were not that big of a deal until 1976. All of a sudden, it just started blowing up. Because of her, they became huge.”
The film’s story stops in 1989, when Jerry Jones bought the team and Mitchell resigned soon after. Shapiro said that was intentional, to keep focused on the most influential period in the squad’s history.
“The cheerleaders became bigger than the football team,” he said. “The idea of deconstructing this iconography was very interesting to me.”
DAUGHTERS OF THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION screens at 7:30 p.m. Sunday as part of the USA Film Festival at the Angelika Film Center. For ticket information, visit usafilmfestival.com.